Over the past few weeks, I have joined with a growing number of queer South Asian, Asian, and Pacific Islander activists, artists, and organizers in protesting the violent transphobia and cultural appropriation and misrepresentation in the new off-Broadway musical, Bunty Berman Presents. (For a detailed critique of the several problematic components of the musical, see my earlier review.)
On Thursday night, I and several other activists gathered outside the Acorn Theatre in Manhattan to hand out informational pamphlets and provide audience members with some context for the musical's message. We made the choice for our direct action to be a positive one. We didn't chant or attack people. We were there to give people information and engage with audience members. While we weren't expecting an overly receptive crowd, the amount of hostility and negativity we received in the form of numerous microaggressions really shocked me. Below is a compilation of various microaggressions we experienced:
Microaggresion: "I'm gay and I didn't see it like that." or "You're seeing something that isn't there."
Hidden Message: "My experience as a cisgender white person is more valid than your experience."
This is a classic case of gaslighting. The aggressor denies the existence of the obvious problem in an attempt to invalidate the opinions, feelings, or memories of the marginalized observer. This statement implies that the aggressor's opinions or observations as a privileged identity are naturally superior to that of the observer. This is a microinvalidation of the observer's experience and attempts to impeach the observer's memory, perception, or worth. It's truly the mark of privilege to so easily and nonchalantly ignore the opinions and feelings of another person.
Microaggression: "Whatever theoretical harm this musical does is unintended. What you are doing is intentional harm to the theatre company."
Hidden Message: "We are real people, we are victims. You are not real people, and therefore cannot be victims."
This is victim blaming. The victims of harm are either blamed for the harm perpetrated against them, or accused of abusing their attacker. This is a particularly despicable tactic that is often used against victims of sexual assault. By flipping the tables and trying to cast the victim as victimizer, this aggressor attempts to single-handedly disregard the true victim's experience of trauma while pinning their crime onto the true victim.
Additionally, this line of thought also diminishes how harmful the messages in this musical actually are, and completely disregards the epidemic of violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people of color.
As a personal note, I find the idea that a multi-million dollar organization could be victimized by a group of friendly people passing out pamphlets and civilly voicing their dissent particularly laughable. There was no yelling, there was no vandalism, there was no physical violence on our part. Again, it is a true mark of privilege to see any opinion other than yours as an attack.
Microaggression: "Lighten up! It's a comedy!"
Hidden Message: "Your experience of trauma is trivial, and should not come at the expense of my entertainment."
This is an age-old and tired tactic that's employed against all kinds of oppressed identities when "jokes" are made against marginalized people. To instruct us to "lighten up" is to trivialize the history of oppression that queer people of color have experienced, and to again position the needs and comfort of the aggressor over that of the victims. We're not against jokes being made about queer/trans/GNC people of color, or forbidding that queer/trans/GNC people of color be cast as villains. But if you're going to use us in your entertainment, then we demand to be fully-rounded human beings, not caricatures.
Microaggression: The building manager, along with several other employees, stood at the doors staring us down. They also warned people against going outside during intermission and eventually locked the doors, despite the fact that we never made any attempt to enter the building, nor did we intend to.
Hidden Message: Queer people of color are suspicious, untrustworthy, and dangerous.
The above actions were taken in an attempt to intimidate those of us who came out to take a stand against transphobia and colonialist cultural appropriation. Additionally, these actions deliberately tried to influence audience members to perceive us as dangerous or threatening. This plays into well-established codes of racial stereotypes of brown people being associated with aggression, radicalism, and terrorism.
Microaggression: "You have to consider the musical in its cultural light. India in the 1950's? It was so homophobic!"
Hidden Message: "India and other people-of-color communities are historically more homophobic/transphobic than white or western communities/countries."
Does India have a history of homophobia/transphobia? Sure. So does the United States, England, Germany... the list goes on. Almost all countries and societies in the modern age wrestle with issues of homophobia/transphobia, and to suggest that western societies are more "enlightened" than non-western societies is both false and offensive. It also diminishes the fact that many Asian societies have well-established cultural space for queer and gender non-conforming people.
This is the same logic that uses homonationalism, which has become widespread in Europe, Israel, and the United States, to rationalize racist and xenophobic policies against brown people and their countries of origin. There are no homophobic/transphobic states and non-homophobic/transphobic states. All societies are plagued with homophobia/transphobia. Homophobia and transphobia are global problems and are not specific to one place or people. This defense is especially baffling as nothing else in the musical was particularly historically accurate.
Other confusing and disturbing responses:
"What is this trope of evil, deceitful, queer/transgender people being deserving of violence? I can't think of any examples!"
Really? Really... I refer you to Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet for many, many, many examples of queer and gender-transgressive characters in film (not to mention other media) as deviant, polluted, dangerous, untrustworthy, villainous, and deserving of violence. I readily point to Silence of the Lambs and Psycho which exemplify some of the most terrifying examples of gender non-conforming characters as psychotic murderers. Queer (In)justice has a very detailed chapter on the queer criminal archetype in media. To deny this long-standing tradition of homophobia and transphobia in media is gleeful ignorance.
"The director is gay! He can't be transphobic!"
Now that... that's funny.